Unchained melodies

Times Staff Writer

When Tony Award-winning Broadway composer Jason Robert Brown was approached about writing music for a new, operetta-style preschool TV show -- about cute and fuzzy classroom pets -- he wasn't exactly bowled over.

"It made no sense to me whatsoever," says Brown, who won the best score Tony for "Parade." "Really, it sounded like the rantings of a crazy person."

Then he saw the pilot episode of "The Wonder Pets!," and, "I just went nuts for it."

As it turned out, Brown is just one of the who's-who list of composers beguiled into writing for this music-driven series for the lunchbox-and-sippy-cup set, which begins today in simulcasts on Nick Jr. and its sister network, Noggin, at 11:30 a.m.

"Avenue Q" composer and co-creator Bobby Lopez came onboard. So did Michael John LaChiusa ("The Wild Party," "Marie Christine"); film and TV composers J. Walter Hawkes and Martin Erskine and Andrew Lippa, who wrote the "The Wild Party" book, music and lyrics.

"We're having a ball doing it, I'll tell ya," says Jeffrey Lesser, the show's music producer-supervisor -- and a multiple-Grammy Award-winning record producer whose theater credits include the cast recordings of "The Rocky Horror Show," Jonathan Larson's "tick, tick

Created by Josh Selig and his company, Little Airplane Productions Inc., "The Wonder Pets!" is shaped around themes of teamwork and problem-solving as the Wonder Pets -- Linny the Guinea Pig, Turtle Tuck and Ming-Ming Duckling -- travel the globe, go into space and head back in time, helping baby animals in distress.

The characters, designed in "photo-puppetry animation," a style created for the show, are voiced by children. A 10-member orchestra records the score for each episode live, at times with other instrumentalists who specialize in music indigenous to the region the characters visit.

Whether the result comes off more like musical theater or opera depends on the episode and the composer.

"Certainly, a lot of our composers bring a musical-theater approach," Selig says. "But that's one reason we wanted to have different composers: We wanted each composer to own a script and personalize it."

And personalize it they do.

Larry Hochman, a Tony nominee for his orchestrations of "Monty Python's Spamalot," the "Fiddler on the Roof" revival and "A Class Act," is the "Wonder Pets!' " resident composer. He set the series' recurring key themes and has composed for several episodes, finding inspiration in Prokofiev, Mahler, Wagner, Richard Strauss, John Williams and, his "jumping off point," Rossini.

Yes, we're still talking about a kiddie show with wee little animal stars.

"Why not?" Hochman says, laughing into his cellphone while on the way to Boston for the "Spamalot" run there.

"Music is music. I told them I don't want to write down to kids. So if it's a guinea pig, it's still an opera guinea pig."

LaChiusa did "a couple of jazzy New York episodes," Lesser says, "and Andrew Lippa did one of our English episodes -- 'Save the Hedgehog' -- sort of a slight homage to Gilbert and Sullivan."

Lopez, who won a Tony for the adult "Avenue Q," took yet another approach. Like Brown, Lopez was sold on "The Wonder Pets!" at first sight. "It had me hooked from the opening bars."

He and his brother, New York musician Billy Lopez, scored two episodes for the show. One of them, about a Long Island puppy that needs to get outside to take care of urgent business, "was sort of appropriately naughty," Lopez jokes.

With operatic fervor, Lopez demonstrates, singing over the phone, "There's a puppy, he has to pee pee, but he can't" (dramatic pause) " 'cause he's stuck in the house."

Billy Joel was "the perfect musical palette" for that episode, he notes, chuckling. "We kind of made our little homage. A children's opera a la Billy Joel."

Brown, who did a "Save the Unicorn" episode, says he respected Selig and Lesser's determination to hire composers "who really could understand how to tell stories through song.

"It had to be people with theatrical backgrounds, because pop people really don't know how to do long-form journeys. The episode I wrote is 13 minutes of music that never stops, and it has to develop in sort of classically traditional ways."

Working with the show's orchestra was another big draw, Lopez says.

"I've written for the Disney Channel before, back when I was trying to make it in the industry, but that was always sort of me and another guy with a couple of synthesizers just putting a track together in a lonely room," he says. "It's a treat to have your stuff orchestrated by such terrific people and to hear it played live by so many musicians."

Lopez and Brown expect to score points with certain members of the show's target audience.

"It's a blast," Brown says. "Whenever I have kids come over to the house, I have my private DVD of the episode and I show it to them and they're riveted by it." He has his own "potential viewer, but she's a little ways off: She's only 5 months."

Lopez is delighted to share his efforts with his 11-month-old daughter. "It's the kind of show I want her to watch, because I certainly can't show her 'Avenue Q' yet -- not by a mile."


'The Wonder Pets!'

Where: Nickelodeon

When: 11:30 a.m. today

Ratings: TV-Y (all children)

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World